Prized for their ample nutrition, rich flavor, and naturally verdant color, pistachios are an affordable luxury for countless nut fans around the world. This guide offers tips, ideas, and easy ways to use pistachios in sweet and savory dishes, with links to delicious plant-based recipes.
There’s a long history and plenty of secrets concealed within that lightly roasted shell. Pistachios harbor their share of controversy, too. Do you know the full facts about pistachios?
What are Pistachios and Where Did They Come From?
Known by many cultures as “the smiling nut” because the split shell resembles a grin, the pistachio spreads happiness wherever it goes.
As one of the oldest cultivated nuts in recorded history, there’s evidence of them being grown in Syria as early as 7,000 BCE, and they even get a cameo appearance in the bible. Thriving in arid, desert climates, they’ve been a staple food in the Middle East ever since.
Not everyone had such easy access to these edible green jewels. It’s said that the Queen of Sheba ruled them as food for royalty, forbidding commoners from partaking. Thankfully, that decree no longer stands, and the first pistachios were imported to America in the 1880s.
Shipping was much more difficult and time-consuming at that point, taking weeks or months on a slow-moving boat, which left the shells looking bruised and browned. The red dye was applied to hide these flaws, which is why it was common to find red pistachios for many years.
Though not harmful, the red dye was anything but natural, and slowly disappeared as domestic pistachio production slowly took off in California. U.S. pistachio production is now second only to Iran in annual volume.
How to Buy and Store Pistachios
Pistachios intended for snacking are often (though not always) sold in the shell, while those meant for baking and other recipes are already shelled. Either form can be found “raw,” roasted and salted, or roasted and unsalted. Some snack mixes offer seasoned blends, both sweet and salty as well.
Given such a wide range of possible uses, pistachios are found all over the grocery store; they might be with the produce to pair with salads, in the baking aisle to go into desserts, in the snack aisle alongside popcorn and chips, in bulk bins for any application, and finally, at the checkout stand in single-serving bags for impulse buys.
Prices cover an equally broad spectrum, starting around $12 per pound, shelled, all the way up to $25 per pound for fancy grades or spiced nuts. The best way to protect your investment is to store pistachios in airtight containers in the freezer if you don’t intend to use them quickly. They’ll keep for 6 to 8 months before the flavor starts to degrade.
If your stash of pistachios is intended to be eaten quickly (as they usually are), storing in an airtight container at room temperature is fine for a couple of months. However, at times when your kitchen is warm, it never hurts to store them in the refrigerator.
Pistachio butter and pistachio flour: Less common forms include pistachio butter, which often includes a touch of sugar to be used as a sweet sandwich spread, and pistachio flour, as an alternative to the more popular gluten-free flour substitute, almond meal.
Hannah Kaminsky’s Pistachio Matcha Muffins
Most pistachio fans are familiar with the Wonderful Pistachios & Almonds brand. They’ve faced increasing criticism for their water usage in California, which has experienced severe droughts in recent years.
Some environmental groups have accused the company of using excessive amounts of water to irrigate its crops, contributing to water shortages in the region.
This has led to lawsuits from farmers who can no longer grow their citrus, pomegranates, wine grapes, and more. This remains an ongoing issue as more companies grapple with the realities of climate change.
Then there is the ongoing litigation between the two biggest players in the U.S., Market, Wonderful and Touchstone. Wonderful has been embroiled in many controversies, so here’s a resource if you’d like to support smaller brands,
If that sounds like a tinder box ready to explode, just wait until you hear about how volatile the actual crops are. Pistachios can spontaneously combust due to a phenomenon called “delayed kernel expansion.” This occurs when there is excess moisture inside the nutmeat, which causes pressure to build up as the nut dries out.
If the pressure inside the nut becomes too great, it can cause the shell to crack and the kernel to burst. This is why even so-called “raw” pistachios are still dried to some degree to remove the moisture.
Pistachio Nutrition Notes
Touted for their good fats, high protein, and fiber content, and antioxidant content, pistachios are true superfoods. An excellent source of vitamin B6, thiamin, magnesium, and manganese, these nuts contain monounsaturated fats, which make them good choices.
They’re also the lowest calorie nut, with just 160 calories per ¼ cup serving. This is particularly helpful for anyone trying to manage their weight since they’re much more satiating than most other comparable snacks. Here’s a look at the full nutrition profile of pistachios.
Dress up pilafs and salads with pistachios!
Quinoa and Cauliflower Pilaf with Nuts and Dried Fruit
Pistachio Recipes and Serving Suggestions
Plant-based milk: Right up there with almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, etc., Homemade Pistachio Milk is a delightfully creamy beverage for drinking straight, mixing into smoothies, baking, or pouring over cereal.
Soups and stews: Harness the richness of blended pistachios to create a creamy bisque. You can substitute them for any recipe that calls for pureed cashews or highlight their unique flavor in a distinctive Cream of Pistachio Soup.
Pilafs: Whether it’s rice, quinoa, wheat berries, or some other whole grain, pistachios can add color and crunch to an otherwise mundane side dish. Try a richly spiced Quinoa-Pistachio Pilaf to get started, a recipe that can also make a great meatless entrée for Passover.
Salads: Toss a handful of chopped pistachios on any leafy greens for an instant upgrade. Simply replace any sliced or slivered almonds in your favorite salad recipe with pistachios instead. Mixed Greens Salad with Beets and Pistachios goes straight to recommending this tasty nut.
Hannah Kaminsky’s Pistachio Praline Linzer Cookies
Muffins, Cakes, Cookies, and Pastries: Finely ground, sifted pistachios can be used in place of almond meal for baking, pistachio butter works perfectly instead of almond, peanut, or cashew butter, and of course, the whole nuts can be replaced or added to a mix of any others. Give it a try in Lemon Pistachio Quinoa Cookies (and see Hannah Kaminsky’s Pistachio Matcha Muffins, linked to earlier in this post). If you’re into fancy baking, see this wedding-worthy Pistachio Rose Cake.
Chocolate Candies and other treats: You don’t need to be a professional chocolatier to turn out incredible pistachio confections. All it takes is some melted chocolate, toasted pistachios, and extra matzo to make Dairy-Free Chocolate-Covered Matzo that a sweet ending to the Seder.
Ice Cream: Vegan pistachio ice cream has come to market! If you want to make your own, look no further than this easy recipe for Vegan Pistachio Ice Cream.
Trail mix: If you like to make your own trail mix with nuts, seeds, and dried fruits, don’t forget the pistachios!
See our Guide to Nuts for more varieties and links to their specific pages.
Contributed by Hannah Kaminsky: Hannah has developed an international following for her delicious recipes and mouthwatering food photography at the award-winning blog BitterSweet. Passionate about big flavors and simple techniques, she’s the author of Vegan Desserts, Vegan à la Mode, Easy as Vegan Pie, Real Food, Really Fast, Sweet Vegan Treats, The Student Vegan Cookbook, Super Vegan Scoops, and The Everyday Vegan Cheat Sheet Pan. Visit Hannah at BittersweetBlog.com.